The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

By William H. Benson
Columnist 

Vaclaf Smif

 

August 31, 2022

Vaclav Smil was born in 1943, during World War II, in Czechoslovakia, in the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. As a teenager, Smil's parents expected him to chop wood, every four hours, to keep the fires burning in the house's three stoves, “one downstairs and two up.”

One writer suspected that Smil may have thought then that “this is hardly an efficient way to live.”

A bright student, with a strong work ethic, Smil left his small hometown in the Bohemian forest and made his way to Charles University, in Prague, the capital, where he studied natural sciences, “35 classes a week, 10 months a year, for 5 years.” And I thought I studied hard at college.

Smil married his wife Eva, and then in 1969, after she completed a medical degree, and after Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia, the couple fled to the United States. Two years later, Smil received a doctorate in Geography at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, Pennsylvania.

He took a job teaching small classes of students environmental science—global energy, populations, material production, trade, food, and policy—at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, Canada.

For the final of his introductory environmental science class, he gave his students 10 multiple choice questions. Each question offered the same options: none of the answers may be correct; they all may be correct; or one, two, or three may be correct. A student had to decide.

After fifty years, Vaclav and Eva Smil still live in Winnipeg, where Smil is now Professor Emeritus.

Over the decades, Smil has written countless numbers of articles, plus almost fifty books. The first, in 1976, he entitled China's Energy: Achievements, Problems, Prospects, and the most recent, in 2022, How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going.

Each of his books are short, but filled with pages of endnotes. He sells only a few thousand copies. Yet, among the wiser sorts, Smil's books have established his reputation as a piercing intellectual.

Elizabeth Wilson at Dartmouth, said of Smil, “You could take a paragraph from one of his books and make a whole career out of it. He does a really good job of being nuanced.”

After Bill Gates read, for the first time, one of Smil's books, he said that he “felt a little beat up.” He wondered, “Am I ever going to be able to understand all of this?”

In the introduction to his latest book, Smil comments upon his need to see a big picture, as opposed to diving deep into a specialized nook of learning.

“Drilling the deepest hole and being an unsurpassed master of a tiny sliver of the sky visible from its bottom has never appealed to me. I have always preferred to scan as far and as wide as my limited capabilities have allowed me to do. My main area of interest has been energy studies.”

In the first chapter, Smil makes a “grim announcement that every fundamental aspect of modern civilization rests on fossil fuel combustion.” From the wood of his childhood, he has witnessed the transition to coal, to crude oil, to natural gas.

For example, he points out that the food that each of us eats arrives in our supermarkets, because some unit of carbon product was expended to first produce and then distribute it.

Ever a numbers guy, Smil says that “a humble loaf of sourdough bread requires the equivalent of about 5.5 tablespoons of diesel fuel, a tomato 6 tablespoons.” He then asks, “How many vegans enjoying a salad are aware of its substantial fossil fuel pedigree?”

“In 2020, an average Earthling has every year about 800 kilograms of crude oil, or 1.5 tons of good bituminous coal at her or his disposal.”

Smil is uncertain about renewables. For example, a wind tower. Fossil fuel is expended to build that tower. He says, “Heavy equipment powered by diesel fuel dug its foundation, kilns fired with natural gas baked each dry sack of concrete, and the steel towers were forged with coal.”

“And an electric semi-truck and trailer can now haul about the weight of their batteries.”

He closes that first chapter with a wry observation. “Both the relative high share and the scale of our dependence on fossil carbon make any rapid substitutions impossible. Not a sudden abandonment, nor a rapid demise, but a gradual decline.”

Smil claims that he is neither a pessimist or an optimist, and that his goal is not to forecast. Instead, he “champions uncertainty, insists upon an agnostic view, and displays humility, the rarest earth metal of all.” He admits that “a breakthrough in cheap energy storage would change the game.”

In cold Winnipeg, Vaclav and his wife Eva live in a 2,000 square foot house “stuffed with 50% more insulation into its walls, its windows triple-paned.” He says, “My house is a very efficient machine for living,” different than the three wood-burning stoves of his childhood home.

 

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